Though frequently portrayed by conservatives as an overly generous, fraud-plagued, dependency-inducing disaster, the federal food stamps program actually serves millions fewer people than are eligible for the assistance. Liberal California sports the lowest enrollment rate and conservative Tennessee holds one of the highest, underscoring how the reality of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) differs from the rhetoric about it.
“Only about half of the Californians who qualify for help get it,” the Los Angeles Times reported Saturday, due to understaffed agencies mishandling applications, “onerous paperwork requirements, inhospitable county benefits offices and confusing online applications.” The state only eliminated its requirement that all food stamps recipients submit to fingerprinting in late 2011, months after Texas had ended the practice. Other unusually stringent and often humiliating procedures for proving continued eligibility remain in place in the state, however. One single mother quoted in the Times’s story was nearly kicked off the SNAP rolls when the state demanded receipts for her day care expenses.
The most recent participation rate data for food stamps comes from fiscal year 2010. That year, nearly 51 million Americans were eligible for the program but only 38 million were enrolled. Maine and Oregon were the only states with all eligible residents enrolled in SNAP. Tennessee had the sixth-highest enrollment, at 92 percent. The Midwest and Southeast had the highest regional enrollment rates. Previous research on food insecurity has shown that hunger is concentrated in rural America.
Beyond relieving hunger and the developmental and educational problems associated with it, SNAP also provides major economic benefits. It’s among the most efficient forms of economic stimulus, returning nearly two dollars in activity for each dollar the government spends. The program lifted 4.7 million people out of poverty in 2011 alone.
Despite representing millions of SNAP recipients in their districts, House Republicans earlier this summer declined to pass a renewal of the program. They plan to vote on a bill that would cut the program by $40 billion over ten years when they return from recess in September. Such cuts would kick millions of Americans out of the program. The unprecedented move to split farm subsidies from food assistance has endangered the anti-hunger program while raising taxpayer-funded guarantees to farm owners.